Content warning: This piece contains discussions of rape and sexual assault.
Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021) doesn’t trust its audience. Scott believes the reason for The Last Duel’s box office failure is Millennials and their cellphones. According to him, it had nothing to do with the script, since the writing was great. Known as one of the most masterful directors alive today, Scott pioneered directorial techniques that have inspired many of our favorite filmmakers. Given his influence, it would be considered blasphemy to criticize a director of his stature.
Nevertheless,The Last Duel has its flaws. The film’s narrative is as such: as part of a duel commissioned by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) faces off against Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) after Le Gris is accused of raping de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Like Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon (1950), The Last Duel depicts the assault in successive chapters, each representing a different character’s recount of the event. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote the male characters’ perspectives; Nicole Holofcener (screenwriter of Can You Ever Forgive Me? ) wrote for Comer’s character.
Marguerite is tacked on toward the end of the film and her testimony is handled poorly. It’s vital to examine how sexual violence is presented in The Last Duel by comparing it to Rashômon — a Japanese film that heavily informs Scott’s non-linear narrative structure. Rashômon also tells the story of the murder of a samurai and the rape of his wife through the perspective of three witnesses. And it likewise examines the problem of defining the absolute truth when there are factual flaws inherent in any subjective testimony.
In each film, sexual trauma arises both from the experience of the assault and the victims’ subsequent plea to other characters (as well the audience) to believe them — a degrading act that reawakens the trauma. Rashômon models an exemplary portrayal of the traumatized psyche through the wife’s perspective to illustrate how damaging the rape is for her psychologically. However, The Last Duel does leave more room for Marguerite’s story to be developed, in order to give a more complete account. Nevertheless, the portrayal of sexual assault in Scott’s film was not handled any better, despite giving Marguerite more on-screen time. While The Last Duel can indeed be considered a film that tries to do justice to testimonies of sexual assault, is anyone reassured that it was left largely in the hands of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Ridley Scott?
By contrast, Rashômon offers a nuanced approach to each character’s behavior. Its embedded narrative structure allows the film better grounding in its theme and moral beliefs.While The Last Duel also deals with the idea of subjective truth, it delivers Marguerite’s account through a hollow and explicit physical depiction of her rape, instead of allowing her testimony to take center stage. In Rashômon, however, the wife’s verbal testimony is all the audience needs to have faith in her story.
Of course, this is not to say that Rashomon focuses entirely on the wife’s perspective of the event. From the moment the film opens, we encounter three men discussing the murder of the samurai and the rape of his wife: the first response is from a decidedly male point of view. We watch as these three men recount a story in which they were not involved, as if it were mere hearsay. Their main focus is not on the rape of a woman, but of the murder of a man. They even have a refrain: “Never heard a story so terrible.” The phrase tells audiences that, in feudal Japan, testimonies of sexual assault are often erased from public view. The testimony of sexual assault is different in Rashômon and The Last Duel; the films attempt to include a woman’s perspective of her assault, even if the latter is more interested in publicizing graphic details of the event. But in Rashômon, the wife’s shame prevents her from going into specific detail, and the absence of a graphic rape scene creates a bridge of empathy between her character and the audience. Even without seeing the assault, we are able to understand her anguish and her sense of guilt, shame, and loss of autonomy.
Not only does The Last Duel give Marguerite’s description of the incident, it gives a visceral view of her rape twice: once in her account, and again in Le Gris’ chapter. The film makes use of different camera angles to portray the violent event, as if asking audiences to interrogate whose account is “true” by vivid immersion in graphic detail. Without a rape scene, however, the female testimony and Marguerite’s experience would have had more weight, given that the crime’s viciousness seems to overwhelm her testimony. Even with its gendered writing credits, the entire narrative arc felt unbalanced – Marguerite’s chapter, though written by Holofcener, feels like a superficial attempt by Affleck, Damon, and Scott to balance to the film’s perspective of the rape scene. The structure, storytelling, and treatment of Comer’s character fail to demonstrate balance, especially since Marguerite’s story still revolves around how the men around her feel about it.
The question of whether rape scenes should be shown in film has been discussed for years, and its excessive use in the last two chapters of The Last Duel leads one to wonder whether it was necessary. Does the audience need to view an explicit depiction of assault in order to believe the victim? When films like Rashômon — which does not show its assault — exist, it is worth asking for whom The Last Duel is written. Depictions of rape and sexual assault seem to be handled poorly when it comes to male directors and screenwriters using them to generate belief. The title of Marguerite’s chapter emphasizes that her testimony is the truth, but we should not have to see her rape twice to have faith in her story. Adam Driver’s portrayal of Le Gris gives the audience a clear sense of who he is: a womanizer who falls for Marguerite. Scott’s direction and Driver’s intricate performance make apparent that Le Gris shows no hesitation in acting on his attraction, while Marguerite’s interest in him is not mutual.
Even before the rape scene, we learn that Le Gris’ interest in Marguerite creates tension between the two characters. Scott should have been able to trust his audience to recognize that Driver’s character’s account can’t be trusted. The faith needed for Rashômon to exist — and for related films to exist without spoon-feeding their audience empirical evidence of traumatic incidents — is vital. Despite this, The Last Duel forces us to watch a rape twice, relying on sexual violence for character motivation this instead of allowing Marguerite to speak for herself, even in the absence of empirical fact. Providing context for why women need to be believed does not require repeated and sensationalized scenes of rape. Viewers must ask for whom is this film is intended – a question I believe went unanswered during the The Last Duel production.